All of us who care deeply about the future of Welsh education have recently had cause for thought. First, the country's disappointing performance in Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessent) and then the chief inspector's annual report, written at the end of a six-year inspection cycle.
It is no wonder that the education minister is so concerned, although I believe it is wrong to pin all the blame on teachers, schools, colleges, local authorities and universities. While I agree with Leighton Andrews that it is time to move forward and to develop a new long-term strategy, there are some difficult issues that need resolving before Welsh education can climb the international league tables.
My ideas are based on my own experiences of research, teaching and consultancies in Wales over the past 35 years. I hope the minister is beginning to share similar views.
First, senior Welsh administrators need to learn the clear lessons from educational research. We have known for roughly 45 years that truants, challenging pupils and young offenders are drawn from pupils whose literacy and numeracy scores fall behind their chronological ages. Hence, the first recommendation from the national behaviour and attendance review team, which I led, was that the Welsh Assembly government "should provide a clear lead that no child (within the mainstream ability range) should leave school without the functional ability to read and write". This is priority number one if educational attainment is going to improve.
Yet the chief inspector's report found that 40 per cent of Welsh pupils enter key stage 3 with reading scores below their chronological age. Even worse, the number of pupils with either special or educational learning needs continues to rise. Therefore, the first fundamental policy initiative should be to put more resources into primary schools to make sure that pupils can read and write properly. As our behaviour report indicated, this should be allied to much earlier intervention strategies, something that is still not happening in too many parts of Wales.
Second, if the school effectiveness framework (SEF) is the number one Welsh educational priority, then get it right! SEF is beset by internal and external disagreements, although there are signs that this is about to change. Many feel the framework does not go far enough and that it should be more inclusive. Either way, constantly changing the goal-posts and relaunching the latest plans is not the best way to embed it and lead to school improvement. The only way to do that is to train every teacher in every school in every local authority to follow agreed national all-Wales criteria. Logistics, decision-making and data collection all need to be streamlined.
Third, the leadership which the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) gives to Welsh education has to change and improve significantly. Wales does not publish many performance league tables, but most of these types of data are still collected. What happens to it? Very little. School and local authority statistics are collected for non-attendance and exclusions and reported to DCELLS. A summary press release is issued and perhaps an action plan. But individual schools and local authorities are not normally challenged on their results by the Department. Are five-year or three-year analytical reports written and circulated on an individual authority or school front? Are differences in the trends between and within authorities analysed? No.
Have the recent changes at key stage 2 on school attendance been picked up? I doubt it. Why are there now more girl truants than boys? Perhaps it is because too many officials lack recent and relevant school-based experience and practical nous that these things have not been happening as a matter of routine.
So, the routine work of senior management in most schools, colleges, universities and authorities is not mirrored in the higher echelons of educational leadership. This is no longer acceptable and needs to be resolved urgently. How can you keep telling the troops what to do if you are not playing by the same rules?
It is the job of leadership within DCELLS to get a grip on Welsh data, analyse it properly and deliver the results to schools, colleges and local authorities. How can SEF work without it? The Department needs more people with relevant school and research-led experience, such as its new education director Chris Tweedale. Some of the people with significant responsibility in the department fall short of their counterparts in Scotland and England and understand less about the educational research literature. Yet, they are supposed to provide the lead to their educational colleagues throughout Wales.
Fourth, consider the dire state of in-service training in Wales. Despite internal reviews, where is the planned, nationally led training for schools, teachers and authorities on raising pupils' literacy and numeracy levels, improving school behaviour and attendance, managing school improvement and the SEF, on management and leadership skills and the interpretation of data? Answer: it is not happening in any systematic way.
Until some of these issues are resolved, the future of Welsh education will continue to be bleak. Watch out when the next set of Pisa results are announced in three years' time. My chief hope is that the task group the minister has set up to examine our education system will draw similar conclusions. Then we might be able to move forward.
Professor Ken Reid was chairman of the national behaviour and attendance review and is a former vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University.